Ten years ago, Vlib revolutionised Paris and inspired the world. But a new operator, higher prices and a hi-tech competitor have shaken its confidence
It was past midnight, I was new to Paris and the city’s municipal bike sharing system seemed something to be regarded with mistrust. It was the first time I ever used Vélib’. It’s hard to believe now, but in 2009 – before the Boris bike, before Uber, and in the bureaucratic world of France – being able to rent a bicycle from a machine using nothing but my credit card seemed too good to be true.
I took the bike out, paid the €150 (£130) deposit plus the 24-hour rental fee of €1, and pedalled on to the streets. The city’s Haussmann beauty sped by. It was like I could feel Paris shrinking just for me. The name, a portmanteau of velo (bike) and liberté (freedom) made instant sense. I only realised that I was cycling direct on to Charles de Gaulle Étoiles – one of the world’s most perilous roundabouts – when I was already there, counting three cars converge at me over the cobbles.
It is now 10 years since Vélib’ was established. The scheme’s trailblazing success has seen bike sharing reach almost 50 countries and roughly 1,000 cities worldwide.
Now Vélib’s operator, JCDecaux, which won the contract in part-exchange for advertising space around the city, has seen its tenure expire. Its successor, Smoovengo, a French-Spanish consortium that runs bike share schemes in 26 other cities, is ushering in a systemic overhaul, due to be complete by the new year. And with rival schemes based on a “dockless” model already popular in China recently being introduced, the French capital is gearing up for major change.
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